In September 2017, the Australian government committed Australian Defence Force (ADF) resources, personnel and AUD20 million in aid to assist Philippine forces in the battle for Marawi in the Southern Philippines. This was intended to show the Australian Government’s resolve to prevent ISIS from establishing a foothold in South East Asia. More specifically, as Prime Minister Turnbull said himself, the Australian Government was committed to preventing the establishment of a ‘Raqqa of South East Asia.' However, the situation in Marawi differs greatly from Raqqa and the decision to become involved on these terms reflected a poor understanding of the Southern Philippines by Australian policy makers.
What actually happened in Marawi? Between May and October 2017, intense fighting in the city of Marawi in the Mindanao region of the Southern Philippines destroyed the city, displaced tens of thousands of people and claimed over a thousand lives. Clashes began on May 23 when Philippine government forces attempted to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, the head of the jihadist Abu-Sayyaf group, who was visiting Marawi City. Government forces were met with resistance from Hapilon’s men who were reinforced by the Maute Group. The Maute Group are a powerful criminal gang local to Marawi and the Lanao del Sur region and are loyal to the wealthy Matriarch Farhana Maute. The combined forces of Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group took control of large sections of the city, fighting under the flag of ISIS. This sparked a major Philippine government response and the battle to reclaim the city.
What dominated Australian security policymaking was concern that the Maute group, who 'declared allegiance to ISIS' in April 2015 and has since used ISIS imagery in its operations across Lanao del Sur, could establish a safe haven for terrorists in Marawi. Consequently, strong action was taken to assist the Philippine government to eliminate the group’s control of Marawi. However, closer analysis of the origins of the Maute group and the fighting in Marawi by Australian policy makers would have revealed that there was no need to contribute ADF assets and personnel.
The Maute group’s ‘declaration of allegiance to ISIS’ and capturing of Marawi has origins in a rido or clan war in the Lanao del Sur region of Mindanao, not from an adherence to radical Islamic teachings. This particular rido started over a dispute about ancestral land ownership with the Pansar family and became violent following a Pansar Mayoral election victory and a rejected Maute bid for a public works project. As clashes escalated between the Pansars and the Maute’s, the Maute’s began using ISIS imagery and made a public declaration of allegiance to ISIS in April 2015 – a declaration which has not been backed up with credible links to ISIS – to intimidate the Pansars. The Maute group have since been involved in attacks on government forces and cities across Lanao del Sur.
This poor understanding of the situation in Marawi not only placed further pressure on an already overstretched ADF, but also implicated Australia in a conflict that claimed dozens of civilian lives and injured and displaced many more civilians from an oppressed minority group, including in airstrikes by the Philippine military. This is a concern as Marawi is at the heart of the poverty-stricken ancestral domain of the minority Muslim Moro population. Sections of the Moro population have been involved in a violent struggle for independence for decades – some of whom adhere to radical Islamic ideology, like the Abu Sayyaf Group. Australia’s involvement in Marawi has provided ISIS, returning foreign fighters and other terrorist groups the opportunity to associate Australia with the continued oppression of the Moros – essentially handing them recruitment material and targets. All of this was risked to achieve Philippine government control of Marawi, which the Philippine military, that was already receiving non-combat assistance from the United States, was equipped to achieve independent of ADF assistance.
So, what should the Australian response have looked like? It should have focused on providing support after the fighting had stopped. Given the poverty and history of oppression of the Moro population, which support the strength of the clans and terrorist groups in Mindanao, Australia’s response should have only involved investment in Marawi and Mindanao to rebuild and generate economic activity. Australia should also have increased the pressure on Philippine President Duterte to remain committed to the Bangsamoro Peace Process to see it passed through Congress.
In future, when confronting groups who claim links to terrorist groups, Australian policymakers shouldn’t panic and default to committing the ADF to combat these groups, as they did in Marawi. Such decisions should be the result of a thorough risk assessment and consideration of history and context.
James Tucker has recently graduated with a Masters in Intelligence and International Security (Distinction) from the War Studies Department at King’s College London.